My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Tim O’Brien

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘King Of The Road: A Tribute To Roger Miller’

Roger Miller was unique in terms of his all-around abilities as an entertainer. He could write off-beat and humorous songs then turn around and write a masterpiece of a straight ahead ballad. The nearest thing to him in terms of his compositional abilities was Shel Silverstein, but unlike Silverstein, who was a terrible singer, Roger was an outstanding vocalist and musician. People who have heard Roger’s concert in Birchmere, VA, about a year before he died can attest that Roger Miller barely even needed a guitar in order to keep and audience entertained.

Because Roger was so offbeat, tributes to him and his music have been rare – many of his most famous songs barely lend themselves to being covered. One of the few tributes I’ve seen was Tim O’Brien’s O’Brien Party of Seven – Reincarnation: The Songs Of Roger Miller, released about six years ago and featuring members of Tim’s family. It is a great album, but Tim and his family mostly stayed away from the more famous songs, and delved deeper into the Roger Miller catalogue.

King of The Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller
is a two disc set featuring snippets of dialogue from Roger along with covers of 34 of his songs as performed by various artists. The covers of straight ahead country songs work best as few artists have the ability that Roger had to let vocal scats and odd phrasings simply roll of his tongue. Among the odder songs tackled on disc one are “Chug A Lug” (Asleep at The Wheel with Huey Lewis), “Dang Me” (Brad Paisley), “Kansas City Star” (Kacey Musgraves), “You Ought a Be Here With Me” /“I’ve Been A Long Time Leaving” (Alison Krauss & The Cox Family) and In The Summertime” (Shawn Camp /Earls of Leicester) . All of these songs are competently performed but sound a bit forced except Shawn Camp’s take on “In The Summertime” since Camp simply treats the song as a straight ahead county song. The Krauss / Cox song would have been better had they performed it as separate songs and not made a medley of it.

For me the disc one the standouts are Loretta Lynn’s take on “Half A Mind”, a hit for her mentor Ernest Tubb, Mandy Barnett’s “Lock Stock and Teardrops” and the religious song “The Crossing” as performed by Ronnie Dunn and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Dwight Yoakam does a fine job with his co-write “It Only Hurts Me When I Cry” but you’d expect no less since it was a hit for him.

Disc two is more of the same, some banter, goofy songs, and some straight ahead ballads. Cake makes a complete mess of “Reincarnation” (the only decent cover I’ve had was by Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle, USMC) and I didn’t like Toad The Wet Sprocket’s take on the old George Jones hit “Nothing Can Stop My Loving You” (also decently covered in the 1970s by Patsy Sledd). Jamey Johnson & Emmylou Harris do a nice job on “Husbands and Wives”.

John Goodman, who never claimed to be a singer, reprises “Guv’ment” from the play Big River. Ringo Starr, also not a compelling singer, gives the right vibe to “Hey Would You Hold It Down?”

For me the two best songs on disc two are the Dolly Parton & Alison Krauss recording of “The Last Word In Lonesome Is Me” and Flatt Lonesome’s exquisite “When Two Worlds Collide”, easily the best performance on the album.

This album offers a good overview of the depth and breadth of the songwriting talents of Roger Miller. While I wasn’t all that impressed with all of the performers on the album, all of them clearly gave their performances their best efforts.

I mostly enjoyed this album and would give it a B+ but if this is your first exposure to Roger Miller, I would strongly suggest picking up one of Roger’s currently available collections of Smash/Mercury recordings.

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea — ‘Pretty Bird’

Kathy Mattea had a decent run as a mainstream country artist, enjoying a string of top twenty records that ran from 1986 through 1995. This run included four number one records with “Eighteen Wheels and A Dozen Roses” being the 1988 CMA Single of the Year. Kathy was the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year for 1989 and 1990.

Kathy Mattea has always been difficult to pigeonhole as a performer. Never a truly traditional country singer, she was able to come close enough to gain acceptance from country radio for over a decade, although by 1990 her sound was drifting into Americana territory as “Where Have You Been” and “Time Marches On” would demonstrate. After a while, she gave up on getting radio airplay and started focusing on making interesting music. Her most noteworthy album of the last decade was 2008’s Coal, a fine bluegrass collection of songs depicting the trials and tribulations of the men (and women) whose lives depend on coal.

Pretty Bird is only Kathy’s second album in the last decade and her first in six years. The album was produced by Tim O’Brien (Hot Rize, Earls of Leicester) for the Thirty Tigers label (essentially an independently produced album with Kickstarter helping to fund the effort) but while Tim is intimately associated with bluegrass, this album would barely qualify as newgrass. It is, however, a fine album that finds the fifty-nine-year-old Mattea in fine voice.

The album opens up with “Chocolate On My Tongue” a whimsical tune by Oliver Wood about life’s small pleasures. I would describe the song as folk music.

Sittin’ on the front porch, ice cream in my hand

Meltin’ in the sun, all that chocolate on my tongue

That’s a pretty good reason to live

Pretty good reason to live

Sittin’ in the bathtub, hi-fi playin’ low

Diggin’ that Al Green, well you must know what I mean

That’s a pretty good reason to live

Pretty good reason to live

Next up is the only song that was ever a huge hit for anyone, Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”. Anyone who was listening to AM radio in 1967 knows just how ubiquitous was this song, charting high on the pop, country, easy listening and R&B charts in the US and reaching the top fifteen or better throughout the English speaking world.

“Mercy Now” comes from the pen of Mary Gauthier. Other than the presence of steel guitar, this slow ballad sounds like folk-(quasi) gospel. I like the song a lot and will need to check more into Gauthier since I am not that familiar with her.

 My father could use a little mercy now

The fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground

His work is almost over, it won’t be long, he won’t be around

I love my father, he could use some mercy now

My brother could use a little mercy now

He’s a stranger to freedom, shackled to his fear and his doubt

The pain that he lives in is almost more than living will allow

I love my brother, he could use some mercy now

Jesse Winchester penned “Little Glass of Wine” a slow introspective ballad given an acoustic treatment on this album. I wouldn’t want to hear an entire album of similar material but the sing fits well within the context of this album

Little glass of wine, you’re oil on my flame

Shy of the sunlight, hiding your shame

And many, many tears, the number is sublime

Shall stain a woman’s bosom, for a little glass of wine

As soon as you learn that you don’t live forever

You grow fond of the fruit of the vine

So here is to you and here is to me

And here is to the ones we’ve left behind

“He Moves Through The Fair” is an acoustic folk ballad performed by Kathy with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. The song is about a wedding that never took place, although what happened to the betrothed is unclear.

“Saint Teresa”, a Joan Osborne composition is a grittier song, open to interpretation.

“This Love Will Carry”, a Dougie MacLean composition, is a nice endeavor that perfectly suits Mattea’s voice. The songwriter sings harmony vocals on the track. I really like the song although I cannot imagine a time in which it would be considered worthy of release as a single:

 It’s a thin line that leads us and keeps us all from shame

Dark clouds quickly gather along the way we came

There’s fear out on the mountain and death out on the plain

There’s heartbreak and heartache in the shadow of the flame

 

This love will carry

This love will carry me

I know this love will carry me

The strongest web will tangle, the sweetest bloom will fall

And somewhere in the distance we try and catch it all

Success lasts for a moment and failure’s always near

You look down at your blistered hands as turns another year

“October Song” was written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner. Jon has never done Kathy wrong with his songs and this dreamy but regretful reverie about a lost love is right up her alley:

And when at last I drift asleep, those dreams of you

Come back to keep me

Wishing I were lying in your arms

Those memories of when we made love

Are just so hard to let go of

Who am I supposed to be

When there’s so much of you in me

Vezner also penned “Tell Me What You Ache For”, a penetrating look at life and love. Vezner is definitely a poet at heart:

It doesn’t interest me what kind of job you got

Where you eat or where you shop

The kind of car you drive

It doesn’t interest me how big a house you own

What I really want to know

Is what makes you come alive

I don’t want to talk about

How your future’s all planned out

That isn’t what it’s all about to me

 

Tell me what you ache for

Tell me what you wait for

Tell me what you long for

What you’re holding on for

Tell me what you’re dreaming

What would give your life real meaning

You’ve been afraid to pray for

Tell me what you ache for

“Holy Now” is a mid-tempo song with some observations on the state of religion. This is followed by “I Can’t Stand Up Alone” written by Martha Carson, who was a huge gospel music star during the 1950’s, best known for “Satisfied.” Martha was the favorite gospel singer for many country singers including Connie Smith, Kitty Wells, Sonny James and many others. Kathy’s voice does not have the power that Carson had, but she does a very nice job with the song

 One of these days I’m gonna take a vacation

To a quiet and a peaceful shore

And I’ll cool my feet in those crystal waters

Where I won’t have to work anymore

 

‘Cause my burden has got a little heavy

Till I can’t stand up all alone

I must lay my head down on one strong shoulder

‘Cause I can’t stand up all alone

No, you can’t stand up all by yourself

You can’t stand up alone

You need the touch of a mighty hand

You can’t stand up alone

The album closes with “Pretty Bird”, written by Hazel Dickens, a folk singer who wrote of the lives of coal miners and their families. This song is not about coal miners per se but you can read much into the lyrics, which urge the pretty bird to fly away to freedom. The song is performed a cappella.

This is not my favorite Kathy Mattea album although I would consider it to be very good with thoughtful lyrics about serious topics. A few more up-tempo songs would have helped but I suspect that I will revisit this album often, a few songs at a time.

Grade: B+

Complete song lyrics can be found here

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson – Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

Album Review: Garth Brooks – ‘Sevens’

sevensGarth’s 7th studio album was released in November 1997. Garth’s marketing acumen went a little over the top on the “sevens” theme, with a deliberate 14 tracks, and a special edition of the first 777,777 copies released. It’s a wonder he missed out on releasing it on 7 July. But luckily there was real substance behind all the marketing flash.

The first single, AC ballad ‘In Another’s Eyes’ was a duet with Trisha Yearwood about a secret adulterous affair/unrequited relationship (allegedly inspired by a line in Shakespeare). It may have had special meaning for the pair, both then married to other people and publicly denying any special interest in one another. It also appeared as the token new song on Trisha’s then current compilation Songbook. The single peaked at #2, but while Trisha is a great singer, the song is a bit overblown for my taste.

The breezy drinking song ‘Long Neck Bottle’, a likeable Steve Wariner song which features Steve on guitar. It’s a shame it wasn’t a full duet, as the song is made for that, but Garth chose to double track his own voice instead. (The pair did record a duet together at about this time, ‘Burnin’ The Roadhouse Down’, which appeared on one of Steve’s albums and was a hit single in 1998.) It was Garth’s first #1 since ‘The Beaches Of Cheyenne’ couple of years earlier.

The excellent ‘She’s Gonna Make It’ just missed that peak, topping out at #2. A sensitive look at the aftermath of a painful breakup, concluding

The crazy thing about it
She’d take him back
But the fool in him that walked out
Is the fool that just won’t act

She’s gonna make it
But he never will

Garth wrote this with Kent Blazy and Kim Williams, and there is some pretty fiddle courtesy of Rob Hajacos.

There was only one more single during the album’s main run, the rowdy ‘Two Pina Coladas’, about drowning one’s sorrows with a good time, complete with barroom-style chorus. It’s not exactly a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable with a good-humored singalong feel.

Radio then received ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ (from a movie soundtrack) before returning to Sevens with the pleasant but forgettable AC love song ‘You Move Me’.

A few years later, in 2000, with no new country product to promote and after the flop performance of the ill-conceived Chris Gaines project, the label tried one more single from Sevens. ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ is a cover of a New Grass Revival song which reached #13 for Garth. New Grass Revival’s Sam Bush and John Cowan guest on harmony vocals, while Bush, Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn play their signature instruments of mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar. The end result is rockier than the original, and lacks its charm, but I applaud Garth’s choice of tribute.

My favourite track is the high lonesome gospel of ‘Fit For A King’, a beautiful song about a homeless street preacher. The harmony singers include Carl Jackson, who wrote it with Jim Rushing.

The passionate ‘I Don’t Have To Wonder’ is a sadder and more subtle (but less immediate) take on the ex marrying another, richer, man than ‘Friends In Low Places’. It was written by Shawn Camp and Taylor Dunn, and is another highlight.

‘Belleau Wood’ tells the story of the unofficial Christmas truce which is said to have occurred on the first Christmas Day of the First World War in 1914. It is genuinely touching, although the tag about seeking heaven on earth feels out of place and anachronistic. ‘A Friend To Me’ is quite a pretty tribute to a close friend which Garth wrote with Victoria Shaw, but the string section is unnecessary.

The charming and self-deprecating ‘When There’s No One Around’ was written by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott. It’s not typical Garth, and perhaps all the better for it.

‘How You Ever Gonna Know’ (written by Garth with Kent Blazy) is an unexciting midpaced song on his favorite theme of taking chances to live life to the full. Well-meaning but cliche’d, it is basically forgettable filler. ‘Cowboy Cadillac’ is regrettably not the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song of that title but a pleasantly bouncy and solidly country if somewhat forgettable tune about a favourite vehicle. ‘Take The Keys To My Heart’ has more of a rock influence, and is a bit boring. Cutting these songs would have made it a stronger album.

The album was massively successful, and is one of Garth’s best selling records, with 19 million sales worldwide to date. It’s also surprisingly good, and surprisingly country, although some tracks are disposable.

Grade: A-

Album Review: O’Brien Party Of Seven – ‘Reincarnation – The Songs Of Roger Miller’

reincarnationRoger Miller passed away on October 25, 1992. In the twenty years since his death performers and songwriters have come and gone, but none who had the imagination or wit of Roger Miller. Most of the readers of this blog likely are too young to remember when Miller burst on the scene in the 1964 with his off-the-wall repartee’ in songs such as “King of The Road”, “Dang Me”, “Chug A Lug” and “England Swings” although they may well remember having heard the songs. Miller was also a master at finding songs excellent songs from other writers – he was the first to record Bobby Russell’s “Little Green Apples” and he had the first (and best) recording of Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbie McGee”.

Fads and fashions change, and Miller’s run as a huge chart artist ended after 1973. After a long hiatus, Miller was talked out of retirement during the early 1980s to provide the music for the successful Broadway musical Big River, which was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning seven (including Best Original Score for Miller). Big River was based on the exploits of Huckleberry Finn from Mark Twain’s novels.

Miller’s songs continue to be performed to this day, Alan Jackson (“Tall, Tall Trees”) and Brooks & Dunn (“Husbands and Wives”) each reaching the number one spot on country charts in during the middle to late 1990s.

Tim and Mollie O’Brien are excellent performers who work in the folk and bluegrass idioms. Tim O’Brien was a member of the highly acclaimed group Hot Rize, plays virtually any instrument with strings and is an accomplished songwriter having written songs recorded by many artists in the country and bluegrass realms. Mollie O’Brien, more folk than bluegrass, is an accomplished singer who has recorded many albums as a solo artist as well as albums with brother Tim and husband Rich Moore.

Tim, Mollie and Rich are from my generation and remember the depth and breadth of the Roger Miller catalog. They felt Miller’s songs would provide a fine unifying theme for a family recording project for their talented offspring. Rather than dictate the agenda, the parents turned their sons and daughters loose to select songs that appealed to them. The end result is a fascinating selection of songs, which includes several selections from Big River, but only one of Roger’s big hits, the ubiquitous “King of The Road”. Trust me, the lack of the big hits does nothing to diminish the quality of the material.

PERSONNEL: Rich Moore (vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, resonator guitar); Tim O’Brien (vocals, electric guitar, banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, ukulele, fiddle, pump organ); Lucy Moore (vocals, keyboards); Joel O’Brien, Jackson O’Brien, Brigid Moore, Mollie O’Brien (vocals); John Gardner (drums).

Rich Moore is Mollie O’ Brien’s husband – Lucy & Brigid are their daughters. Joel & Jackson are Tim O’Brien’s sons. Read more of this post

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Coal’

Kathleen Alice (Kathy) Mattea was born June 21, 1959, in South Charleston, West Virginia, the daughter of a coal miner and steeped in the lore and culture of the coal mines. While some think of her as a country singer and others regard her as folk, bluegrass or neo-Celtic, I prefer to think of Kathy Mattea as a quintessentially American singer and just leave it at that.

While Kathy had an extended run of top-twenty chart success running from 1986 to early 1993, Kathy’s records became increasingly more interesting once the focus on chart success subsided and she focused more on music she found interesting. With Coal, Kathy reached her career apogee, at least as far as artistic success is concerned.

Coal has always been a subject of great interest, whether to folklorists, economists or politicians. Coal is one of America’s greatest natural resources and the source of heated debate on how to mine it, how to utilize it and indeed whether or not to mine and utilize it all. While I have always been either an urban or suburban dweller, my grandfather, Otto Jetzork, was a coal miner who died at the young age of forty-three from “black lung” disease, so at a young age I started reading about coal miners and coal miners.

Ms. Mattea selected an excellent group of songs for her album and an excellent group of pickers including Marty Stuart (mandolin, acoustic guitar), Stuart Duncan (fiddle, banjo) and Byron House (acoustic bass).

The lead-off track is “The L&N Don’t Stop Here In Anymore”, a Jean Ritchie composition that some may remember as the title track of a New Coon Creek Girls album from 1994. Quite a few artists have recorded the song including Johnny Cash. Kathy does an excellent job with the song which, with slightly modified lyrics, could apply to the fate of many company towns, whatever the industry

I was born and raised at the mouth of Hazard Hollow
The coal cars rolled and rumbled past my door
But now they stand in a rusty row all empty
Because the L & N don’t stop here anymore

This is followed by another Jean Ritchie song, “Blue Diamond Mines”. I think I heard the Johnson Mountain Boys do this song on the radio but I wasn’t very familiar with the song; since I find Jean Ritchie’s voice rather annoying I’ve tended to avoid her recordings. Given the quality of these two songs, I may reconsider and seek out some of her recordings. Kathy, as always, is excellent. This track features vocal harmony by another Kentucky girl, Patty Loveless:

You old black gold you’ve taken my lung
Your dust has darkened my home
And now I am old and you’ve turned your back
Where else can an old miner go

Read more of this post

Classic Rewind: Kathy Mattea and Tim O’Brien – ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Lonesome Standard Time’

1992’s Lonesome Standard Time saw Kathy working with a new producer, Brent Maher, probably best known for his work with the Judds in the 80s. Happily, this didn’t change the overall style, and Kathy was able to maintain her usual standard of high-quality material with a strongly non-mainstream feel.

The punchy title track, written by Jim Rushing and Larry Cordle, draws on the high lonesome tradition of bluegrass to portray the sad emotions of a broken heart, when the sound of a “crying fiddle is the sweetest sound on earth”. The lead single, it just failed to break into the top 10 but is a great track with a committed, energized vocal which opens the album with a real bang.

The pensive ballad ‘Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst)’ contemplates losing touch with friends not treasured enough. A mature lyric and string laden production make this a bit more AC than most of her work, but the lovely tune, sensitive vocal, and wise lyrics (penned by Bucky Jones, Dickey Lee and Bob McDill) would stand out in any company. Its genre crossing capacity is shown by the fact that blues-rock musician Joe Cocker covered the song in 1994, followed by country veteran Don Williams in 1995. Kathy’s version was the album’s second single and just squeezed into the top 20.

Equally thoughtful, the spiritual ‘Seeds’ (which peaked at #50) takes a philosophical look at human potential, declaring,

We start the same
But where we land
Is sometimes fertile soil
And sometimes sand
We’re all just seeds
In God’s hands

The final single, Nanci Griffith’s uplifting ‘Listen To The Radio’, where country radio acts as the protagonist’s friend and companion while she drives away from her man, performed even more poorly despite being packed full of vocal character – not to mention the presence of Eagle Bernie Leadon on guitar.

The sardonic and catchy ‘Lonely At The Bottom’ had recently been recorded by former duet partner Tim O’Brien in his shortlived attempt at a solo country career. The protagonist is talking to an old friend who has found success has not brought happiness; unfortunately, Kathy informs him, poverty has brought nothing better either. A great acoustic arrangement, Kathy’s playful interpretation supported by call and response backing vocals make this highly enjoyable.

‘Forgive And Forget’ is a mid-tempo Kieran Kane song which sounds potentially radio friendly, and had previously appeared on Kane’s underrated 1993 solo Atlantic album Find My Way Home following the breakup of The O’Kanes. A lively, confident cover of ‘Amarillo’ is also highly entertaining.

The gentle ‘Last Night I Dreamed Of Loving You’ is a beautiful song by country-folk poet-songwriter Hugh Moffatt, given a delicately stripped down production, with the haunting harmonies of Tim O’Brien balancing the raw emotion of the lead vocal.

There are just a couple of tracks which fail to sparkle. ‘Slow Boat’, written by Kathy’s husband Jon Vezner with George Teren is pretty and laidback but a little forgettable. ‘33, 45, 78 (Record Time)’ takes a metaphorical look back at the passing of time.

Despite the relatively disappointing performance of teh singles, sales were good, and it was Kathy’s fourth successive gold record. The limited airplay may mean, however, that more casual fans may have missed out on an excellent album. Luckily, you can make up for that, as used copies are available very cheaply.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Kathy Mattea and friends – ‘There’ll Be No Distinction There’

Kathy pays tribute to Blind Alfred Reed:

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Untasted Honey’

The confidence engendered by the success of Walk The Way The Wind Blows enabled Kathy to follow the same path with its successor released in 1987. Allen Reynolds’s clean, crisp production marries tasteful rootsiness with radio appeal, and the songs are all high quality and well suited to Kathy’s voice.

Poetic lead single ‘Goin’ Gone’ headed straight to #1, becoming Kathy’s first chart topper. Reflecting Kathy’s folkier side, it was written by Pat Alger, Fred Koller and Bill Dale, and like her earlier hit ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, it had been recorded by Nanci Griffith on her The Last Of The True Believers. Kathy is a significantly better singer than Nanci, and her version of the song is quite lovely.

The second #1 from the album was ‘Eighteen Wheels And A Dozen Roses’, probably Kathy’s best remembered song and certainly one of her biggest hits. The warmhearted story song (written by Paul and Gene Nelson) has a strong mid-tempo tune and a heartwarming lyric about a trucker headed for a happy retirement travelling America with his beloved wife.

Singer-songwriters Craig Bickhardt and Beth Nielsen Chapman provide vocal harmony on both these singles, as they do on the title track, which Bickhardt wrote with Barry Alfonso. Here, a restless self-styled “free spirit” yearns for the wide open spaces,

Where a soul feels alive
And the untasted honey waits in the hive

It sounds beautiful, although the faithful lover left behind gets short shrift.

Tim O’Brien’s ‘Untold Stories’ made it to #4. An insistent beat backs up a positive lyric about looking past all the hidden hurts of the past in favour of reconciliation with an old love. O’Brien, a fellow West Virginian who was at that time the lead singer of bluegrass band Hot Rize, sings harmony and plays mandolin and acoustic guitar on the track, while The Whites’s Buck White plays piano. O’Brien also wrote ‘Late In The Day’, a highlight of the record with a downbeat lyric about late night loneliness, an acoustic arrangement and perfectly judged vocal. It’s the kind of song Trisha Yearwood would have done well with a few years later, and Kathy’s version shows just how good a singer she is, both technically and as a master of interpretation.

His contribution to the album did not end with these two songs, as he also duets with Kathy on Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet’s beautiful ‘The Battle Hymn Of Love’, a wedding song based on the vows of a marriage ceremony. It was belatedly released as a single in 1990, to promote Kathy’s A Collection Of Hits compilation, and reached the top 10. A slight folk feel is lent by both Tim’s vocal stylings and the use of hammered dulcimer in the pretty arrangement.

The album’s last official single (another to peak at #4) was the melancholy ballad ‘Life As We Knew It’. It is almost a prequel to ‘Untold Stories’ with its story of a woman packing up her things, filled with regret for the life she is leaving behind. It was written by Walter Carter and Fred Koller, and has a particularly beautiful, soaring melody. Jerry Douglas guests on dobro, and Tim O’Brien harmonizes again.

One of Kathy’s favorite writers, Pat Alger, teamed up with Mark D Sanders to write ‘Like A Hurricane’, which picks up the pace a bit. West Virginia references ad lovely instrumentation lift a well-performed but otherwise unremarkable song. The tender love song ‘As Long As I Have A Heart’, written by Dennis Wilson and Don Henry, has a pretty tune and acoustic arangement, and is very good. The delicately sung ‘Every Love’, co-written by folkie Janis Ian with country songwriter Rhonda Kye Fleming, offers an introspective overview of the nature of love, and has a stripped down acoustic backing featuring the harp.

Untasted Honey was Kathy’s best selling album to date, and her first to be certified gold. It is also a very fine record which stands up well after quarter of a century, and contains some of Kathy’s best work. It is available digitally, and can be found cheaply on CD.

Grade: A

Album Review: Kathy Mattea – ‘Walk The Way The Wind Blows’

1986’s Walk The Way The Wind Blows marked a turning point in Kathy Mattea’s recording career. Following two moderately successful albums for Mercury Records, it marked a major change in direction, both creatively and commercially. She cast aside the pop-country arrangements that had characterized her previous two albums and the stripped-down folk-flavored sound proved to be a good fit with radio during the then-fledgling New Traditionalist movement.

Mattea’s commercial fortunes began to change with the release of the album’s first single, “Love at the Five and Dime”, which included harmony vocals by Don Williams. It is notable both for being her first Top 10 hit, peaking at #3, and for gaining recognition for its songwriter Nanci Griffith. Griffith’s own recording of the song appeared that same year. The song’s success stands as a testimony to the remarkable era in which it was released; nothing about the well written story tune is, on the surface, particularly radio friendly, and it is unlikely that would ever have been a hit during any other era in country music. It most certainly would not be given much attention in today’s environment.

The upbeat title track, written by Tim O’Brien was selected to be “Love at the Five and Dime’s” follow-up hit. This one seems to be more in line with what radio is typically looking for, but it did not perform quite as well as its predecessor, peaking at a still respectable #10. Mercury chose another ballad as the album’s third single, the lovely “You’re The Power” written by Craig Bickhardt and F.C. Collins. Though it reached #5, this one doesn’t seem to be as well-remembered today as some of Kathy’s other hits, but it is beautifully performed and is my favorite song on the album. The album’s final single was “Train of Memories”, which peaked at #6, but was ultimately overshadowed by the bigger hits that followed it from Kathy’s next album.

The introspective “Leaving West Virginia” gives us a rare glimpse at Kathy Mattea the songwriter. The protagonist is heading for California rather than Nashville, but it seems quite possible that the tune is semi-autobiographical. “You Plant Your Fields” and “Up Grinnin’ Again” are the album’s two weak spots. They are not bad songs, and if included on any number of other albums, they might not stand out as the weakest tracks, but they don’t quite rise to the level of most of the other songs on the album. The album does close on a high note, with a cover of Rodney Crowell’s “Song For The Life”, which would become a hit for Alan Jackson eight years later.

Like its predecessor From My Heart, Walk The Way The Wind Blows was produced Allen Reynolds, who was probably most famous up to that point for his work with Crystal Gayle. He would continue to be Kathy’s producer for the rest of the decade before going on to even greater fame producing hits for Garth Brooks.

Though it was released over 25 years ago, Walk The Way The Wind Blows has held up exceptionally well. The production does not sound dated and the only clue to the album’s age is the fact that this type of music would not be considered commercially viable today. It is available for download and used CD copies can be purchased at bargain prices. It’s worth checking out if you missed it the first time around.

Grade: A-

Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – ‘Help My Brother’

On what I believe is their tenth album, the bluegrass-singing brothers from rural New York state (Leigh and Eric) offer compelling tenor vocals with an edge and the kind of close harmonies only siblings can produce, fine songwriters with an ear for melody and the willingness to put the song at the center, and serve it sensitively with the right vocals and instrumentation for that particular song.

This album (their second for Compass Records) is produced by the brothers with their bass player Mike Barber. The excellent, and never overpowering, solid bluegrass backing comes mainly from the brothers’ band. Eric plays banjo and Leigh guitar, and the band is rounded out by Clayton Campbell’s fiddle (whose playing sings beautifully over the rhythmic instruments) and Joe Walsh’s mandolin, with Mike Witcher guesting on dobro on a couple of tracks. There is an interesting selection of material, just over half of it written by one or both of the brothers.

Leigh sings lead most frequently, but Eric sings lead on and wrote my favorite song, the wistful ‘Dixie’, asking Vegas era Elvis if he would go back to the innocent happiness of youth, “back before your hair was black, before they called you King”, and to the arms of his first sweetheart. It is immediately followed by the other song he wrote alone, the faintly Byrdsish ‘Frozen In Time’, which is less memorable musically, but has quite a quirky lyric about a quietly lonely man “living in the past”:

My clothes don’t fit the fashion of the day
That’s all right, nobody’s watching anyway

The vibrant title track, written by Leigh, is an idealistic declaration of changing one’s life to help others:

Call it compassion, call it charity
I call it living like living should be

Leigh duets with Claire Lynch on his own ‘Talk To Me’, a soothing song about a marriage in a little trouble due to lack of communication, but not beyond salvation, while Alison Brown takes over the banjo strings. My favorite of Leigh’s solo compositions is the closing track, the historical ‘Safe Passage’, about his ancestors, a Scots family who emigrate to Canada, whose son or grandson then fights in the American Civil War and settles on a farm in upstate New York. The story ends with the brothers themselves, having left the family farm for another kind of journey, for a life in music.

Leigh and Eric teamed up with Tim O’Brien to write the thoughtful and mature confessional of ‘Want vs Need’:

I want an encore, a standing ovation
A crowd that laughs at everything I say
I want a hit song that everybody’s singing
I just walk out to the mail to get my pay

But I just need my own song
One that I love singing
A simple song that takes me down the road

This reflection is inspired by a woman the protagonist has taken for granted, leaving, but overall the mood on this album is a fairly happy one. Even the extremely bleak lyric of ‘One Car Funeral’, which the pair wrote with Jon Weisberger about a man who has touched other’s lives so little he has no one to mourn his death, is married to a surprisingly cheery tune which keeps the mood upbeat. Perhaps this is the point: that this man has touched life so little that even the singer and musicians don’t care.

Alongside the new songs, there are several relatively obscure covers, my favorite of which is the O’Kanes’ country hit ‘Just Lovin’ You’ (#5 in 1987). There are also an enjoyable, slightly raucous take on Jim and Jesse’s ‘I’ll Love Nobody But You’, and a beautifully sung low key version of the religious song, ‘He Can Be Found’ (recorded by the Louvin Brothers on their classic Satan Is Real album).

Ricky Skaggs shares lead vocals and harmonies with the brothers on the new but very traditional sounding trio, ‘Working As We Rise’, which recalls the melody of ‘I’ll Fly Away’. I also really liked Chris Henry’s cheerful rambling song about ‘Walking West To Memphis’ to be reunited with a more sedate loved one, the kind who drinks lemonade rather than her lover’s choice of whiskey, but has a powerful enough attraction to drag him from his gambling ways, even if he has to walk all the way from Nashville.

This is a very good collection of material, sung and played beautifully, which grows with every listen.

Grade: A

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Up On The Ridge’

I’ll confess that I’ve had my reservations about this long-awaited fifth studio album from Dierks Bentley. Originally Dierks and Capitol had planned to release two albums this year — a bluegrass album and a “regular” country album. When it was announced that the plans had been changed, that only one album would be released and that it would be bluegrass-influenced but not exactly “pure” bluegrass, I feared that the label was back-pedaling due to a lack of confidence that bluegrass would sell in today’s market. My fears were not allayed with the single release of the somewhat disappointing title track. My main gripe was the overly-processed harmony vocals. I’m not a bluegrass purist; I’m not bothered at all by the inclusion of electric and percussion instruments, but Alison Krauss’ usually distinctive voice was unrecognizable and it just sounded out of place on a bluegrass(ish) recording.

It was, therefore, a tremendous relief to hear the remainder of the album, which is a lot closer to what I’d had in mind all along. Dierks is joined by an impressive guest roster of musicians from both the bluegrass and mainstream country communities; Alison Krauss, Ronnie and Del McCoury, The Punch Brothers, Sam Bush, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, and Kris Kristofferson are among the artists lending their talents to the project, which was produced by Jon Randall Stewart, an accomplished musician in his own right.

The album is an interesting mixture of of traditional songs such as “Fiddlin’ Around” and “You’re Dead To Me” and more progressive fare such as “Fallin’ For You” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)”. There are also touches of folk and rock on a reworked version of Bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” on which Dierks is joined by progressive bluegrass band The Punch Brothers. The Punch Brothers also contributed to the more traditional “Rovin’ Gambler” as well as the aforementioned “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” which also features Del McCoury and sounds like something from a SteelDrivers album. There are even some modern classical elements, a Punch Brothers trademark, included on “Pride”. The Punch Brothers are a band that I’m going to have to check out more thoroughly in the future.

Bentley shares co-writing credit on five of the album’s twelve tracks, four of them with producer Stewart. The remaining songs come mainly from the catalogs of some of Nashville’s finest songwriters: Shawn Kemp, Paul Kennerley, Verlon Thompson, Tim O’Brien, Kris Kristofferson and Buddy and Julie Miller. Thompson wrote “Bad Angel” along with Suzi Ragsdale. On this track, Dierks is joined by Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson, who both provide fine vocal performances on one of the best tracks on the album. Kristofferson contributes a characteristically rough duet vocal on his 1969 composition “Bottle To The Bottom”. Closing out the album is “Down In The Mine”, one of the songs Bentley and Stewart wrote together. It’s reminsicent of the often-recorded Merle Travis classic “Dark As A Dungeon.” Stewart and Sonya Isaacs provide beautiful harmony vocals. As the song and the album wind down, it just left me wanting more.

The title track is currently at #25 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart. Whether it will gain enough momentum to reach the Top 10 remains to be seen, as does whether or not subsequent singles will chart well. It would be nice to hear some of these songs on the radio; they provide a much-needed antidote to the ubiquitous pop-country currently rulilng the airwaves. In the end, though, I suspect that this may be one of those albums that manages to sell well without a lot of radio support. But regardless of its fate at radio and retail, Up On The Ridge is an excellent example of artistry and an essential purchase for any serious country music fan.

Up On The Ridge is available at retail stores, as well as at Amazon and iTunes.

Grade: A

Keith Whitley the Songwriter

In addition to being an exceptional vocalist, Keith Whitley was also a very accomplished songwriter. He didn’t record very many of his own songs, but a handful of them went on to become hits for other people. Here’s a sample of some of the songs he wrote or co-wrote:

Looking For The Stone — Tim & Mollie O’Brien

I Love You Enough To Let You Go — Chely Wright

It’s All Coming Back To Me Now — Keith Whitley

Album Review: Alecia Nugent – ‘Hillbilly Goddess’

HillbillyGoddessI first heard Alecia Nugent back in 2004, when she released her eponymous debut album. It had some great songs on it, but I must confess that I didn’t really enjoy her singing, which I felt lacked subtlety and verged on the strident. Because of that, I passed on her follow-up in 2006, A Little Girl … A Big Four Lane, and it is only now, with the release of her third album Hillbilly Goddess, that I have rediscovered Alecia.

Her singing has improved immeasurably. Her tone has become warmer and fuller, the stridency I disliked has disappeared, and she has developed the ability to sing with subtlety as well as emotion. Carl Jackson’s production is faultless, and the pair of them have picked some very good songs well-suited to Alecia’s voice and style, which is very much in the country-meets-bluegrass vein.

The change is evident from the first track, the edgy ‘Wreckin’ The Train’, where Alecia gives it some rambling-girl attitude as she refuses to settle down: “I just had to walk away, he would have made a good husband, I guess that’s why I couldn’t stay.”

There is a gorgeous version of Buddy and Julie Miller’s modern classic ‘Don’t Tell Me’, which is imbued with delicately understated emotion, which is perhaps the best exemplification of how far Alecia has progressed as a vocalist. She gives a beautifully understated reading of Tim O’Brien’s regretfully poetic ‘Wishing Hard’: “Sugar just can’t hide the taste of bitterness that you get from wasting a heart that’s full of love but just can’t show it”.

Several of the songs are told in the third person, although they tend more towards snapshots of lives rather than true story songs. Some of them work rather nicely together. The downbeat ‘Just Another Alice’ takes a sympathetic look at aspiring singers “believing they’re a song away from being stars” but really “just another Alice here in Wonderland”. In ‘The Last Greyhound’ an 18 year old girl who might be one of those Alices leaves home to follow her dreams, only to find home is what she really dreams of. A male protagonist learns the same lesson later in life in the mellow-sounding closing track, ‘Already Home’:

“He knew the road like the back of his own hand,
He’d been on it a lifetime, still he wouldn’t call it a friend,
He said, he guessed some people search forever for something they already own,
And he could have saved himself a lot of miles if he had only known”

The joyful title track, co-written by Alecia herself with Jackson and Sonya Kelly, is a light-hearted but at heart, deeply romantic, tale of true love, set to a lively up-tempo tune featuring banjo from J D Crowe. The downhome heroine “may not be a glamor queen”, but to her man, she is the eponymous “hillbilly goddess”. The label should try this irresistible song as a single.

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